I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, November 9, 2014

What matters to me today

Mt. Shuksan and cloud
I am very tired this morning, but I slept like a log and feel more rested than I thought I would. A creature of habit, I deviated quite a bit from my usual Saturday activity yesterday. I got up an hour early in order to make it to the meeting spot before dawn and start a trip up into the High Country. I took that picture yesterday. Because the weather has been so warm, the snow hasn't begun to cover the trails to make them inaccessible, so five of us decided to give one of our summer favorites a try. It was a wonderful day, but after the almost-nine miles we covered on Thursday, with only a day in between, I knew I would be pushing it if I went.

We piled into Fred's large SUV, and I sat in the middle seat in back, with Steve on one side, and Al's daughter Lisa on the other. Most people think it's no fun to sit in the middle, but I prefer it. I have a perfect view through the front window as well as nice warm bodies on either side. Whenever we must use that seat, I beg for it. But then again, I'm strange that way.

Hiking along in the alternating sunshine and clouds, I had plenty of time to think about the book I'm reading right now: Atul Gawande's Being Mortal. It's a book that lingers in my mind, thinking about life and loss. I have saved the last chapter for today. Not a long book, you could read it quickly and forget about all the issues he raises, or you could, as I have, take your time and consider what he has to say. It's a very personal book; as a physician he says he learned many things in medical school, but nowhere was he taught how to deal with death and the dying process with his patients. And, of course, we all have that to look forward to, not only with our parents and friends, but also with ourselves.

Since I have lost both of my children, people often use the phrase "no one should have to bury a child" or something similar when they learn of it. And then they will often retreat from the conversation because they don't want to consider how they might one day have to go through that same ordeal. "I don't think I could go on if that happened to me." I hear that one, too.

What does that mean? How does one NOT go on with life? I remember well when Stephen died I was a young mother of 22. I couldn't fathom how I would go on. Although I had another child, four-year-old Chris, my world had shattered around me and I fell into a deep depression. I can still remember weeping uncontrollably and Chris coming to put his arms around me. He said, "I'll go up to heaven and get Stephen so you will be okay again, all right Mom?" He couldn't think what to do to keep his own world together. That moment must have reached through my anguish, because I can still remember it after more than half a century. And it still hurts.

One doesn't really pass through such a fire without being permanently changed. Within a few short months, my then-husband Derald and I had divorced. We were both hurting and couldn't help the other. Even though I survived those awful years, I managed to add to the pain and suffering of those I loved, but I didn't care because I couldn't see past my own suffering. There are many, many things I would do differently today. There was no such thing as a bereavement group for me to attend back then, and I made many mistakes in my effort to cope. I know that if I had known anyone else who had gone through something similar, it would have helped. But although there were certainly others, we all endured our agonies alone, as if we were the only people who had ever gone through such situations.

But it happens all the time, you know. Not everybody lives to be old, like I am now. And now that I am old, I have my own decline to look forward to. We laugh about it, make jokes about it, but the truth of it is that, as Atul has pointed out in his book, it's going to happen to everyone, and making some rational decisions about our options, thinking about what's really important to us, is essential to having a good life and a good death.

As I read in his book about people who struggled between the decision to stop or continue treatment even though the outcome of their illness was certain, I realized that there are some upsides to having heart disease being the agent that took my parents from me. No long-drawn-out dying process for my dad: he was vigorous and active right up to the heart attack that caused him to die three days later. Long enough for us all to come home and say goodbye, to be surrounded by my other family members. But he was only 62 when he died, and my mother was angry at him for not having been willing to endure bypass surgery so he could have lived another decade or so.

My son Chris was jogging when he was felled by sudden cardiac arrest at the age of forty. He also lived a good life, was happily married and loved his job. He had hobbies that fulfilled him, and he was well respected by those who knew him. When I went to Germany for his funeral, I learned many positive things about my son that I didn't know. It made me very glad to learn more about him, but I still suffered plenty of pain and agony during that time, as well as the months and years that followed. But when I compare the two losses of my children, the first was much, much harder. It was my first loss and I was completely unprepared for it. When Chris died, I was sixty and had lost both parents by then.

And the truth of it is that the young woman who mourned the loss of her beautiful, healthy infant was not the same woman who lost her grown son. The loss of our loved ones changes everybody; it's part of life. It's like everything else that happens to us: we have choices to make all along the way. Becoming inured to it with drugs and attempt to escape is one option; the other is to let it have its way with us. Going through the pain and suffering means that you come out the other side with a renewed sense of the brevity and beauty of every day. That's what it means to me, anyway.

As I put one foot in front of the other on my journey to the pass yesterday, I felt the sun on my face and looked around at the incredible beauty I was privileged to see. I can still travel many miles with a pack on my back, go to places that fill my heart with joy, and enjoy it all in the company of others who share this journey with me. Although one day I will no longer be able to do what I did yesterday, I will still be able to decide what's important to me. And I know that as long as I can feel the sun on my face and experience the beautiful outdoors, I'll be fine. I won't always have to hike to the top of mountains to appreciate the beauty all around me, but for now, I'm enjoying it.


June said...

Well done.
On so many levels.

Marty said...

Whatever your choices were earlier in your life, or the results of them, it sounds as though you've arrived at a good place, a contemplative place.
Thanks for sharing that difficult part of your life with us, and for providing much food for thought.

John's Island said...

Hi DJan, After reading today’s post I used your link to go over to Amazon and add Being Mortal to my Kindle. I’m looking forward to getting started with it. You wrote a wonderful reflection on the difficult times you’ve had to deal with. My wife and I do not have children by choice. She grew up in a large family and, when the youngest was born, she was just old enough to be mother’s favorite assistant raising the baby. She was not inclined to want more of that and, as for myself, well, (said with a smile) being a high school teacher led me to believe that perhaps my day at school was, for me, enough interaction with youngsters. It is sad to read about how you lost your sons. I do believe, though, that your difficult times have given you an admirable strength to look at life and reflect on it in an admirable and positive way. Thank you, as always, for sharing and for your kind comments on my blog. John

Linda Reeder said...

This is another little masterpiece of an essay, DJan. And as always, it gives us so much to contemplate.

Elephant's Child said...

My eyes are leaking a bit here.
Beautiful, and wise post.
Hugs. And long may you see the beauty around you. Long may we all see the beauty...

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

I am sorry that you lost both your sons; I don't know whether I've ever said that to you. The losses surely did change you in ways only you know, and they took away your chance to be a grandma now that you are older. In your search for meaning, you often remind us of the blessings of fitness and the beauty of nature. You also demonstrate the beauty of a really good and caring person. Thanks for this post.

Pippa said...

Lovely. And wise. Though you wrote about several things that touched me, I think I will come away with the thought that, like you, if I can feel the sun on my face and enjoy the beauty around me..I'm good. And grateful. Thank you for sharing this with us.

Arkansas Patti said...

Powerful post Djan. Chris's statement when you lost Stephen was beyond touching. What a beautiful heart that youngster had and how he loved his Mother. You were blessed, not long enough but well.

Gigi said...

Sending you hugs, DJan. You are a remarkable woman.

Red said...

You are certainly a poster girl for how you coped with your losses. Things have changed since the tragic loss of your little one, however we have much more to do in dealing with loss. I look back on my Dad and he never came to terms with the loss of his eleven year old daughter. It also influenced the way he parented his other children.

Sally Wessely said...

Your words comforted me today as they have at other times. I will always be grateful to you because you were one of a handful of people who were able to get through to me with words of hope and encouragement after I lost my daughter. You continue to inspire me. Love to you, dear DJan.

O-town Ramblings said...

"One doesn't really pass through such a fire without being permanently changed." Only one who has experienced such a traumatic, unexpected loss truly understands how true those words are. How lucky I am that not only do you understand, you reached out to me through the blogosphere and shared your wisdom and compassion with me after my own great loss.

This was a very timely, relevant post to me as I've been thinking a lot about death and how different people choose to die, and how those left behind deal with death. I recently finished the book "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons Learned from the Crematorium. It's a great book. I highly recommend it. I'm also curious to read the book you mentioned. As always, thank you for a well-written, thought provoking post.

Far Side of Fifty said...

Keep looking for that sunshine on your face and the beauty around you! Changes in our lives change us...sometimes for the better and sometimes not. Of course you would have done things differently in retrospect...wouldn't we all change some things if we could?

Anonymous said...

I, too, cannot fathom the depth of your despair when your baby died. Horrible!

As for your senior years, I think the deal breaker would be dementia. That's the condition I fear the most.

Folkways Note Book said...

What a beautiful heartfelt post. The issue of a lost child is seldom addressed by our society. Many of our friends avoid talking about it. This makes your post especially good to read. We never forget the young ones we have lost -- not even for a day. -- barbara

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

You write so beautifully. I've got to order that book! Off to Amazon.

John's Island said...

Hi DJan, Thank you, as always, for your comments on my blog. I’m stopping by today to try and give an answer to one of your questions: Why, when talking or writing about ships, are they referred to as “she”? I love the question! I’m so old fashioned that I never questioned it, just accepted it and always have always thought of ships as a “she”. Your question put me into research mode and I’ve been reading what I can find. There are a surprisingly (to me, anyway) large number of explanations ranging from silly and absurd, to simply honor. As for me, it has always been an assumption of honor. I’m afraid I’m from that generation where women were honored and given preferential treatment: opening doors, seating at a dining table, etc. Of course all of that is changing, at least for a lot of folks. Perhaps the best explanation (again, to me, anyway) is from the US Navy military history website: “Q. Why is a ship referred to as ‘she?’
A. It has always been customary to personify certain inanimate objects and attribute to them characteristics peculiar to living creatures. Thus, things without life are often spoken of as having a sex. Some objects are regarded as masculine. The sun, winter, and death are often personified in this way. Others are regarded as feminine, especially those things that are dear to us. The earth as mother Earth is regarded as the common maternal parent of all life. In languages that use gender for common nouns, boats, ships, and other vehicles almost invariably use a feminine form. Likewise, early seafarers spoke of their ships in the feminine gender for the close dependence they had on their ships for life and sustenance.” Thanks for a great question! John

Glenda Beall said...

I am with my 86 year old cousin this week and she lost a son and a husband she adored. She speaks so lovingly of both of them and I love to hear her talk about her beloved son. Many people avoid talking or having to listen to someone speak of their loss, but I learned after losing so many of my family and especially my husband of 45 years, that people need to talk and listen when they can to learn all they can before it happens to them. This Sunday we will bury my dear sister's cremains in our family cemetery. It is hard to give that final goodbye, but I can deal with it now. I've been through so much sorrow and grief that I know I have strength to carry on. Your post today is beautifully written and thanks for the title of the book. I plan to read it. Thanks also for visiting my blog.

Deb Shucka said...

This is my favorite of all your writing. So honest and profound and insightful. I can't tell you how grateful I am to be friends with someone slightly ahead of me on this journey, someone whose courage and spirit I admire and aspire to.

Linda Myers said...

Wonderful post, DJan. I'm going to look for the book.